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Imprisoned Former Cabinet Minister Is So Grateful He Was Sent There

After being convicted of perjury, JONATHAN AITKEN served time in HM Prison Belmarsh.
Here he reveals how a talent for writing love letters led to offers of hardcore porn – and a very unusual prayer group.

On the first morning of my prison sentence, on June 9, 1999, I awoke at 5.30 am and wondered how I would survive the coming day.   HMP Belmarsh was notorious for being “a tough nick” and it had lived up to its reputation on the night of my arrival, with dozens of its inmates participating in an obscene chant on the theme of “Let’s Get Aitken Tomorrow”.

Among the noisiest vocalists in the chant were the neighbours on my wing landing.   Occupying the cells immediately to the left and right of me were a couple of prisoners who seemed to have cast themselves in the role of cantors.   After helpfully identifying my precise location in their sing-song voices, they would shout a question such as:  “What shall we do to Aitken (or Aitken’s private parts) tomorrow?”   From the other three sides of the exercise yard came a thunder of unprintable responses.

Although my blood ran cold when I first heard these raucous exchanges, the combination of physical exhaustion, saying a prayer and reading a psalm caused me to fall asleep before the shouting had run its course.   But the memory of these menacing obscenities came back all too vividly as I began to think about the day ahead.

In contrast to the cacophony of the night before, the stillness of the morning after felt amazingly peaceful – Belmarsh was as quiet as a becalmed battleship.   Its silence was strangely conducive to prayer.

As I took in my immediate surroundings, I remember thinking: “Now I can see why monks down the centuries have found cells such good places to pray in.”   Confronted with the stark reality of being shut inside a 12ft x 8ft concrete walled box – whose main features were iron bars, iron door, iron bed, chair, table and toilet – I realised life could be liveable in these claustrophobic surroundings only if one’s spiritual heart and mind were in the right place.   So I turned to God and prayed.

Among other things, I prayed for peace with the editor of the Guardian and other journalists.   These supplications ended by praying over some verses from Psalm 91.   This is a great plea for God’s protection from enemies – something I badly needed in the light of the previous evening’s chantings and threatenings.

My prayers were interrupted by shouts of “Unlock!   Everybody out!”   This was the daily wake-up call to the inmates of Belmarsh from its prison officers as they came down the wings unlocking our cell doors and ordering us to stand on the landings for the morning roll call.

As I stepped out of my cell, I remembered that the noisiest vocalists of the night before had been my immediate neighbours to my right and left.   So I trembled as I stood on the landing beside them – until it emerged that their nocturnal hostility had changed into amiability.

“G’morning,” said one of them.   “’ope you slept well.   Sorry about last night.   We were on the tackle (drugs).   Just lettin’ off steam.”

“Yeah, nothing personal, mate,” said the other.   “Let’s ‘ave a rosie together at association.”   (A cuppa at tea-break time.)

As my eyes started to become accustomed to the landscape of prison, I was surprised by many more unexpected discoveries.   The first was how young everyone seemed to be.   The average age of a British prisoner is 23.   So Belmarsh, like other big London prisons, has many teenagers within its walls.   My second observation was the extraordinary availability and common usage of drugs.   The third was that beneath the surface of these outwardly macho young men lurked a lot of human vulnerability.

One aspect of this vulnerability appeared on the second day of my sentence, when a young black prisoner came up to me and said “I’ve just had a letter from me brief, but I can’t read it.   Would you do us a favour and read it?”

The letter I read aloud was a threatened eviction notice from Lambeth council.   After some discussion, it emerged that the prisoner’s brother could take care of it by paying off the arrears in instalments.   “Ok, let’s tell the council that,” said my new friend, whose name was Stokesey.   “But I can’t write either.   Could you write it for me?”

So I wrote an appropriate letter to Lambeth council and Stokesey signed it.   He was so delighted that he skipped away, holding the envelope above his head and declaring at the top of his voice:   “That MP geezer’s got fantastic joined-up writing.”

This commercial for my graphological skills fell on the ears of a surprisingly receptive audience.   For approximately one third of British prisoners are unable to read or write.   They often conceal this vulnerability from each other, but it is revealed in the literary tests all prisoners have to take at the beginning of their sentences.

So an older prisoner who is willing to volunteer for the role of an amanuensis soon becomes a useful member of the community.   What I could never have predicted was that my usefulness would lead to the starting up of a prison prayer group.

During the early weeks of my sentence, I did a lot of letter reading and writing.   At first, this was the cause of some humour.   One day, an old lag came up to me and said “Jonno, do you realise you is havin’ a fantastic impact on the girls of Brixton?   They can’t believe the sudden improvement in the quality of their love letters.”

Whatever was or was not happening among the ladies of Brixton, I got quite a few signs and comments of appreciation from my fellow prisoners.   One of them was an Irish burglar, unsurprisingly called Paddy.   He invited me into his cell for coffee and made a little speech of thanks.

“On behalf of the lads, I’d really like to thank you for all the letter writing you’ve done for us,” he began, “and I’d like to give you a present to say how much we appreciate it.   So you can have anything you like – free of charge – from me library.”

At this point, Paddy dived underneath the left-hand side of his bed and brought up an amazing selection of hardcore porn magazines.

“No, thank you,” I said, obviously reverting to the persona of a pompous politician because Paddy took umbrage.

“Too good for you, eh?”   he said, with a bitter edge to his voice.   Before I had time to reply, Paddy’s fertile mind thought up an ingenious explanation for my refusal. 

“Ooh … if it’s boys you’re after,” he said, now diving under the right-hand side of the bed and coming up with an alternative selection of hard porn pictures.

“No, no,” I said hurriedly.   “I used to like the first sort of magazines you showed me but, these days, I’m trying a different path in life.”

“So what kind of path would that be?” asked Paddy.

“Well, if you really want to know, it’s the path of praying to Jesus and obeying his teachings,” I replied.   “It’s a path that has changed my life.”

A long silence spread over us in that cell.   It was eventually broken by Paddy, who, in a slow voice, said the unexpected words:  “You know, I’d really like to try that path myself.”

Before I could respond, the floodgates opened within Paddy and he poured out a litany of woes describing all that was wrong with his present path in life.   Much of his misery came from the kinds of complaints that are often heard in the world of freedom.

“There’s no meaning to my life…. my wife doesn’t understand me … all I care about is money and, when I’ve got it, there’s no point to it … my relationships keep going wrong … my life’s just empty … totally unfulfilled.”

After much more in this vein, Paddy ended by saying:  “Me nan (grandmother) used to believe in Jesus and she really had something.   I can see that you’ve got something.   So I’d like to try that path myself.   I really would.”

One of my self-imposed survival rules in prison was that I had resolved never to talk about religion.   Before I went inside, an ex-prisoner had warned me that “Jesus freaks sometimes get served up” (beaten up).      So I had kept my prayers for the privacy of my own cell, until this moment.

Now I realised I had to respond to Paddy.   So it was my  turn to create a long pause between us, until I finally said: “Well, Paddy, if you feel that way, why don’t we say a prayer together?”   I had moved a long way since the days when I thought that praying out loud would be worse than going to the dentist without an anaesthetic.

And so we prayed.   First night, second night, third night.   Then Paddy, who had in him the qualities of a good recruiting sergeant, decided that our two-man prayer partnership needed to be expanded.   So he went off recruiting and came back with two or three of his friends, then two of three more, and then still more.   Before we knew where we were, we had gathered together about 12 young men in a rather unusual prayer group – so unusual that it gave a new meaning to the Christian term “a cell group”.

We started off in considerable embarrassment.   “How do we pray?” someone asked.   Then a Nigerian prisoner leapt in with a passionate extempore prayer on why he adored the Lord Jesus.   We were off and running.

Far from being the tutor of the group, I was its greater learner and beneficiary.   Until my time in prison, I had prayed from my lips.   It was my fellow prisoners who taught me how to pray from the heart.

Their examples showed me how little of prayer is to do with the human activity of polishing up words and phrases that we think are appropriate for addressing God.   What my prison prayer partners instinctively knew was that prayer is a supernatural activity in which we rely on God to enter our hearts, and to let our feelings rise up to him in words, occasionally in silences, which he inspires.   In retrospect, it seems extraordinary that I should have had to get into a prison cell to learn these facts of prayer life.

As I participated in prayer with those who were struggling against, say, the inability to forgive, I became much harder on my own failures in this area.   This particular problem was solved for me by the advice of a Benedictine monk whom I met when he was walking around the exercise yard of Belmarsh, dispensing pastoral advice.   I told him of the problem I was having over unforgiveness, particularly towards one or two journalists who persisted in writing complete fiction about me.

“Pray to receive the gift of forgiveness,” said the monk, “and when you receive it, give the gift back towards those towards whom you feel unforgiving.”   So I prayed, and weeks later, it all happened just as the monk had said it would.   My unwillingness-to-forgive problem rolled off my shoulders and has not troubled me again since.

One of the most difficult areas of supplication in our prison prayer group was drug addiction.   The jails of Britain are awash with horse, Charlie, cover, tackle and a dozen other exotically named derivatives of heroin and cocaine.   The prices are low, the dealers are persistent and flesh is weak.   But, in some cases, prayer was an enormous help to young men who wanted to break their habit and stay clean.

Most of them had done Narcotics Anonymous courses of one kind or another that referred to the need for the help of “a higher power”.   What does this phrase mean in the context of secular NA or AA courses?   At least a Christian prayer group can answer the question by praying for the power of the Holy Spirit to come into a drug user’s heart and transform his weak will so that it harmonises with God’s will.   The accountability factor in a group of prayer partners can also be a huge support in weaning drug users off their habit.

Drugs were only one of the pressures that caused turbulence in the lives of the members of our prison prayer group.   We all had family worries, relationship problems, temptations, character failures, special situations and a mass of other baggage to bring before God.   “And who the hell is God, anyway?” one inmate asked, aggressively.

Some of these young men would address their prayers to God the Father, not least because they had never known who their earthly fathers were.   However, they knew they wanted a paternal presence bringing support, stability, discipline and fatherly love to their lives.   Others prayed to God the Son, because they knew they needed to relate to Jesus and what he offered – compassion, forgiveness, healing and a love for sinners.   And others prayed for the power of the Holy Spirit to come in and transform their lives so that they turned away from crime, drugs, anger and other demons.

This was spiritual life in the raw, stripping away many of my own protective defences, which had separated me from God and my neighbours in the past.   I am not the best judge of how much it changed me.   All I can say for sure is that I came to love God and my neighbours (not all of them instantly loveable people!) far more than I had ever done before.

That gain from prayer life as a convict now seems far more fulfilling than the prizes of public life as a Cabinet minister.   So for that reason, I now say from the heart: “Thank you, God, for sending me to prison.”

Jonathan Aitken, 2004

Story by courtesy of the Daily Telegraph

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